The Elusive Teacher Next Door

Many educators cannot afford to live in the districts where they work, which is detrimental to school cohesion.

The famous "Painted Ladies" and the San Francisco skyline
The mayor of San Francisco recently announced a plan to construct subsidized teacher housing.  (Paula Froke / AP)

In San Francisco, the average one-bedroom apartment rents for over $3,000 a month. When I first heard that San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, inspired by the story of a homeless teacher, intends to allocate $44 million toward housing for public-school teachers, I imagined the Tyrell Corporation headquarters protruding from the center of an empty parking lot on the outskirts of the city. Each night, an army of tired teachers would slide into a few thousand utilitarian capsules wedged into its futuristic façade—skinny beds, hot plates, shared bathrooms, low ceilings.

The plan: a 130- to 150-unit building in a district with more than 3,600 full-time teachers who could, if a similar experiment in Los Angeles is any indication, actually end up earning too much to even qualify for the housing. While it’s unlikely to fix the problem, it’s certainly noble in spirit.

Both teachers and students benefit when teachers can live in the communities they serve, and when school districts nationwide look to hold on to priced-out teachers, from North Carolina to Colorado to Washington, D.C., they’re increasingly considering subsidized housing as a solution.

Broadly, cities suffer when they purge workers charged with their nourishment—police officers, firefighters, social workers, and small business owners as well as teachers. I know two San Francisco city planners who ironically can’t afford to rent in San Francisco. In education, the persistent turnover of teacher talent particularly undermines schools seeking to maintain stability and elevate academic standards. Like cops who police neighborhoods in which they have no personal stake, commuter teachers are less equipped to understand and meet the needs of their constituents

Because I’m a commuter teacher myself, I know how this feels. A few months into my current teaching job, a coworker and I were discussing a challenging student. “Well, he’s a Peacock Gap kid,” my coworker said. I didn’t know what that meant, so he suggested I drive through town during my planning period. He knew I lived in West Oakland and didn’t know much about San Rafael, a Marin County outpost not far from the Richmond Bridge in the San Francisco Bay Area. And he knew it’d be to my advantage if I knew more—teachers ought to be familiar with the communities whose children they’re serving.

So I took that drive a few times to acquaint myself with the area—from Peacock Gap to downtown to the Canal to Terra Linda. But I knew it wasn’t enough. After all, some of my classmates from graduate school had rented apartments in low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods to embed themselves in the unfamiliar environments affecting the lives of the students they’d soon teach. The logic wasn’t faulty: Research supports the idea that better relationships between teachers and students lead to better learning—and that such relationships are easier to hone when teachers know their students’ home turf.

Yet embedding myself in San Rafael has never been an option. The city’s home prices average $1 million and have increased by nearly 9 percent in the past year.

My small school district is evidence that even a comparatively high teacher pay scale (with a starting first-year annual salary of over $50,000, roughly $15,000 more than the average starting salary nationally) is far from enough to live comfortably the Bay Area. At an April board meeting, one young teacher reported that she lives with relatives in a town 43 miles away because she can’t afford her own rent. At the same meeting, a veteran teacher my school can’t bear to lose admitted he was being headhunted by a better-paying district close to his girlfriend’s house in Silicon Valley. Whether these anecdotes and the countless others like them will convince the school board to approve a raise to reflect the skyrocketing cost of living isn’t clear; my union has been negotiating with the board to improve the teachers’ contract to little avail. In my district, which unlike most others in the state is funded mostly by property taxes, ever-growing revenue from residents’ expensive real-estate have filled district coffers—yet teacher salaries have essentially stagnated since the beginning of the decade. Whether or not the contract dispute is resolved in teachers’ favor, the San Rafael superintendent has taken a page out of Mayor Lee’s book and floated the possibility of a “workforce housing” plan.

When I moved to West Oakland in 2014, I turned down offers from San Francisco Unified School District because San Rafael City Schools offered $15,000 more a year. That boost, of course, comes with sacrifices: Each weekday, I spend an hour-and-a-half driving 40 miles to and from school, and each month, I spend a total of $240 on tolls and gas. My insurance is higher thanks to the thousands of miles I drive.

I pay a price for this in other—more deleterious—ways, too.

When they don’t have to fight traffic, teachers tend to hang around campus after the final bell. I won’t make it across two county lines to pick up my daughter from her nanny share in time if I dawdle. So I don’t tutor, go to school plays, lead clubs, attend games, or coach.

When a teacher lives in the community, parents aren’t just email addresses and phone numbers. Parent-teacher interactions aren’t limited to disputes over a child’s behavior or grades. Those interactions instead can happen on the sidewalk or the shoe store or the gym. The parents may provide medical care, serve food, or fix cars. There’s no forfeiture of authority when these barriers crumble, just the acknowledgement that both parties are stakeholders in the community and the institutions it comprises.

As the parent of a 2-year-old, I can imagine that raising children in the community where I teach might change my perspectives on what I hear from my students, too. Maybe I’d pay more attention to students’ spiteful warnings about the apparently hellish elementary and middle schools they attended. Maybe I’d be able to volunteer outside of school. I want to be reminded that my institution—public education—affects my family as well as the larger community.

Like many of their teachers, lots of Bay Area students don’t live full-time (or even part-time) in their school districts. In my district, students from nearby Richmond illegally provide relatives’ addresses or (more infrequently) obtain transfer authorization so they can learn in a better-funded school district with less crime. I teach dozens of such students each year; they may not know San Rafael much better than their teacher commuting from West Oakland.

* * *

I grew up seeing my third-grade teacher at the pool. My fourth-grade teacher occasionally walked her grandson past my house. My 11th-grade English teacher lived across my alley and loaned me Grateful Dead records that I didn’t appreciate until 12 years later. They weren’t constant presences, but knowing we shared a space besides school made me feel more comfortable in school when I needed help. As a teacher, I understand why that is: Every interaction between a student and teacher that is not marked by the pressures of grades and demands for compliance is, I’ve learned, a chance to foster comfort. A series of such healthy interactions with even a handful of kids can improve individual classes, research shows—and when those interactions are spread out across the teachers’ classrooms, they help the school’s students sense that their teachers’ care is personal as well as professional.

It may be hard to quantify a healthy school community, but observe any playground or rally or school-dance or hallway where one exists, and its value is palpable. When a school community is healthy, school pride can override social cliques; students from different backgrounds interact meaningfully and make one another feel welcome; teachers are respected, not feared; communication lines between students, teachers, parents, and administrators remain open, which can mean fewer kids give up. School is shared with students, not imposed on them, an approach endorsed by a wealth of scholarship.

Teachers bridge gaps better when they don’t cross bridges, but a few drives through the neighborhoods and near-static salaries and affordable apartments for a fraction of a district’s teachers won’t fix that. A healthy school community doesn’t naturally coalesce and—especially when students and teachers are geographically fractured as well as separated by race and socioeconomic status—it takes work in and out of the classroom. Having students discuss their school culture in class activities and propose solutions to identified problems, for example, or assigning them research projects requiring them to investigate and offer perspectives on issues in their communities outside of school. My ninth- and 12th-grade students for their part have debated the benefits of diversifying student government and building a new football stadium. These are rigorous academic exercises with the added benefit of empowering students and helping a teacher feel less disconnected.

This effort can unfold at the administrative level, too. My school recently held the most productive staff meeting I’ve experienced in my brief tenure. A student panel spoke for one-and-a-half hours with the entire faculty about creating a more inclusive school culture. I raced back to Oakland, proud that my diverse yet racially and economically stratified school was at least having this conversation.

The feeling reminded me, in a way, of a small Los Angeles charter I once taught at characterized by its affinity for parent-teacher conferences, an unusually generous student-counselor ratio, after-school and weekend volunteer opportunities, mandatory end-of-year field trips to build relationships and challenge students, a popular Field Day ritual, and intense, curious all-school singalongs led by the intrepid founder. The oft-referenced governing philosophy was that school could feel like summer camp—even for students (and teachers) from different neighborhoods. The model was seriously flawed, of course: My students had never been to summer camp, and both students and teachers moaned that school consumed their lives. But, it was a bold, if muddled, attempt to address an essential challenge exacerbated by physical distance: the chasms between the people who learn and teach and live in the school community.

In contrast, workforce-housing proposals feel like symbolic, half-baked gestures. Just as firing a few bad teachers every year won’t alone close the achievement gap between affluent students and poor ones, houses for a relative handful of teachers won’t address overarching factors a district, city, or state can’t or won’t control. In the Bay Area and other parts of the country, a school’s identity may be less attached to its location on a map than ever before. Time may demonstrate the toll this takes on student success.